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Music helps to treat substance use disorders in men: Research

In Peru, music is being used as an effective therapeutic tool.

Icaros, or traditional songs, are used as part of a man’s drug and alcohol addiction recovery programme.

These icaros are utilised during ayahuasca healing rituals at the Takiwasi Center for Drug Addiction Rehabilitation and Research on Traditional Medicines in Tarapoto, Peru, together with conventional Amazonian medicine and psychotherapy. A music researcher from the University of California, Riverside has documented the beneficial role icaros play in men’s recovery for the first time in the centre’s 30-year history. The name of ayahuasca, a plant-based hallucinogen, translates to “vine of the dead” in Quechua, the main Indigenous language of Peru.

The findings of the study, led by UCR doctoral ethnomusicology student Owain J. Graham, were published in the journal Anthropology of Consciousness. Graham said the topic of his research needs to be further explored and the role of music as a therapeutic tool better understood so that music can be more effectively integrated into healing treatment options for patients in the United States, and potentially globally, suffering from addictions and other illnesses.

About 67 per cent of participants who completed a nine-to-12-month program at Takiwasi Center, did not return to substance abuse, according to previous research cited by Graham and his colleagues. About 86 per cent of patients showed statistically significant improvements on the Addictions Severity Index, an assessment tool used to evaluate substance abuse treatment.

An analysis from 2017-19 assessed 180 responses. All patients reported that icaros changed their psycho-emotional state and that icaros affected healing related to “unblocking,” a process also known as “cleansing” and “removing,” referring to reports of ayahuasca’s purgative effects, both physical and psycho-emotional.

“Ethnomusicologists and medical anthropologists understand the role that music plays in healing among many cultures,” said Graham, whose research interests include indigeneity and ritual music in South America. “While Western biomedicine’s foundation in science is strong, it has also neglected to explain the connection of mind-body and how music can affect healing.”

The Takiwasi Center only hosts men in its on-site residential program.

It focuses on men’s health because in Peru and around the world most substance addicts are men, not women. Respecting the guidance of Amazonian healers, the program also requires complete focus, including sexual abstinence, which is why it does not allow women to live within the community of rehabilitation patients. Women do receive treatment and are allowed to participate in the centre’s healing ceremonies.

Over decades, the use of ayahuasca has garnered greater global attention, but in the upper Peruvian Amazon region, this has been an ancient cultural practice, Graham said. At the Takiwasi Center, the combination of monitored psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy — along with icaros sung in Spanish, Quechua, other Amazonian Indigenous languages, and sometimes French — helps men shift away from drugs. Through his research, Graham understood that illnesses are not just physical ailments, but also derive from social and spiritual issues.

For more than a decade Graham had been interested in understanding the relationship between music and altered states of consciousness, focusing on cultures that have long-standing traditions of using the two together. He soon realized that recent clinical studies on psychedelics had a major component missing from their reports: sufficient focus on the use of music in their protocols.

“I got to thinking, ‘Maybe I can add something to this conversation. Maybe I can help add some context and hopefully amplify the perspectives of traditional healers using these medicines/substances.’ The healers inherited practices going back hundreds of years to their ancestors,” Graham said.

Patients at the Takiwasi Center — a space Graham visited for several months at a time in 2019 and 2022 — partake in six-hour ayahuasca ceremonies guided by traditional healers. The healers’ guide participants with icaros, the music emotionally and mentally transitioning them from one stage to another.
Responses and experiences did not vary when it came to a participant’s culture and demographic background. Graham’s sample included 58 per cent South American and 42 per cent Western European men.

Are icaros and ayahuasca healing ceremonies enough to completely change a person’s substance abuse? Graham warns against literal interpretations and unrealistic expectations. Traditional healing takes time, which is why Takiwasi’s program is nine to 12 months long. Also, during this period participants have time to integrate lessons and process the trauma that is brought up by ayahuasca ceremonies, Graham said.

“I would caution people in both directions. A lot of people have been hearing more about ayahuasca in the past 10-15 years. Some claim they were reborn, with some major trauma healed after one ayahuasca session. That can happen, but that is not the normal case,” Graham said. “What’s important to note is that there needs to be more collaboration between researchers across disciplinary lines. Clinical researchers should be thinking of more traditional uses as they create therapies in hospital-type environments.”